IT MIGHT BE the longest menu in the Washington area, and certainly is one of the most unusual. The menu at Hunan-Viet, 6850 New Hampshire Ave. in Takoma Park, lists seven pages of Chinese dishes, then seven pages of Vietnamese items.
The Vietnamese menu, a warren of noodle soups, noodle dishes, rice dishes and crepes as well as meats and seafood, is full of dishes not found in other local Vietnamese restaurants. The best dish I've tried is pineapple squid with garlic sauce: curls of scored pale squid tossed with fresh pineapple, scallions, bamboo shoots, red pepper and plenty of garlic, for only $6.99. (Main dishes start at $4.50, and most are under $10.) Even the desserts include the unexpected: sweet bean curd with ginger, and sometimes sticky-rice balls stuffed with banana and cooked in banana leaves.
Hunan-Viet is a tidy restaurant with red tablecloths, mirrored walls and a crystal chandelier; its service is pleasant if lackadaisical. Clearly it is a bargain, though the cooking is erratic, encompassing excellent fried fish under a characterless Hunan sauce; overcooked shrimp in a too-sweet caramel sauce; and spicy, meaty Vietnamese spring rolls that would make any restaurant proud. With nearly 200 dishes to offer, and having a seafood market in the family, Hunan-Viet is bound to contain some buried treasure. WHETHER IT is for environmental or budgetary reasons, many of us now habitually carry plastic coffee mugs that we have bought at our everyday coffee shop so we can get refills at reduced prices rather than a new disposable mug for every cup. Mel's Deli in Capitol Hill's Washington Court Hotel has taken this idea even further. You don't need to buy a mug, just bring your own. And anytime you buy something at the deli, Mel's will refill your coffee mug free.
RESTAURANT CRITICS trying to remain anonymous are prone to paranoia, but this is too bizarre for even me to believe: I was in New York, planning to dine at the new Bernard's Cafe News, but my purse was stolen during breakfast at an outdoor cafe. So I never got to Bernard's. A few days later I encountered a review of Bernard's by Liz Logan in New York magazine, and read in it that before one of her visits to the restaurant, her companion's wallet and passport had been stolen. Is someone sabotaging Bernard's? Or is it de rigueur to have your wallet stolen in New York?
FRENCH RESTAURANTS may be past their heyday, and eating beef may be past its prime, but Le Steak is undaunted. It is opening a French restaurant in Tysons Corner, at Plaza 1900 on Gallows Road, and will feature the food of southern France. The specialties will include but go beyond Le Steak's traditional grilled sliced beef to the region's traditional bouillabaisse, as well as raw marinated salmon, eggplant and goat cheese terrine, duck salad, the salt-cod paste called brandade de morue, poached eggs in puff pastry and lobster ravioli.
SPEAKING OF lobster ravioli, I increasingly wonder why restaurants bother with this dish. Le Steak proposes to stuff its ravioli with chunks of lobster, so maybe it will be worth the effort. But most restaurants' stuffing of lobster paste is so bland and insignificant that the ravioli might as well be stuffed with codfish at a small fraction of the price. I often hear complaints from diners who have paid what amounts to $3 or $4 per ravioli at fashionable restaurants and are disappointed, because lobster as a stuffing typically adds far more price than distinction to the pasta.
Phyllis C. Richman's restaurant reviews appear Sundays in The Washington Post Magazine.